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Houston paramedics report hour-long wait times to transfer patients from ambulance to hospital

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said calls have increased 20 percent in the last three weeks.

HOUSTON — Paramedics are running into often hour-long wait times when transferring patients from an ambulance to a hospital, Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday.

Peña said the department has been receiving a 20 percent higher call volume over the last three weeks, and that when paramedics arrive at the hospital with patients, the time it takes to get the person into the hospital is taking double or triple the normal amount of time.

“The longer it takes us to service those critical calls, it is going to cost us in lives," Peña said. “Our system is getting strained.”

He said at least 560 calls for service resulted in hour-long wait times or longer within the past three weeks, straining a department that is already short-handed by about 300 firefighters, with another 241 "out of service" due to either quarantine or positive COVID-19 tests.

“We have 104 ambulances in the system, and we need each one of those to be as efficient as we can," Peña said. “What was taking 20, 30, 35 minutes, now has doubled in certain instances.”

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Hospitals in the Texas Medical Center are busier than normal: the TMC announced on its website that 100 percent of its base level ICU beds are full.

Twenty-eight percent of those patients have COVID-19, and the other 72 percent have other illnesses. Hospitals can carry a "sustainable surge capacity," repurposing general beds into ICU beds by equipping them with ventilators, other equipment and staff.

Peña did not reference specific hospitals, but spokespeople from Houston Methodist and St. Luke's Health responded to KHOU's request for comment:

"We take all patients in need of our care as long as we have the staff and resources to care for those patients. 

Additionally, we follow all the regulatory guidelines in regards to the acceptance of patients who need our care. However, in some instances, it is not unusual for emergency rooms to notify local emergency medical services if there is a need to temporarily divert traffic. 

We strive to provide compassionate care to our community when they need it and when they need us most, particularly during challenging times."

Methodist's spokesperson says their emergency departments are not facing any capacity or staffing shortages.

Houston firefighters and paramedics face another problem on the job: exposure to the virus.

An estimated 186 firefighters are in quarantine, and another 55 have tested positive for COVID-19. Chief Peña said the department is already short-staffed by about 300 firefighters already, straining the system.

He is asking the public to stay home because the more people expose themselves to the virus, the more people firefighters, paramedics, doctors, and nurses must treat, and potentially expose themselves to.

“Whatever we can do as a community to help flatten that curve is going to help us certainly as first responders, but it’s going to help our patients as well.”

Peña also said some people are calling 911 for symptoms similar to COVID-19, such as fever or cough, and he asked that people reserve 911 for true medical emergencies, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or other life-threatening symptoms.